Tuesday, 22 December 2009
The Longest Day
Children’s birthday parties are not my favourite events. There’s the noise. The responsibility. The expense. And the worry that your child won’t enjoy their own celebration, and you’ll have suffered all of the former for the reward of tears and disappointment.
This has happened quite a few times in the past.
So, this year we planned a nice relaxed event for my son’s tenth birthday. A joint party with his friend Adam – to halve the expense and responsibility if not, sadly, the noise. Bowling. Crisps, sandwiches, biscuits and cake. Over and done in two hours. We picked the first day of the school holidays, the 21st of December, the shortest day in daylight hours. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the party was a great success. Twelve boys and three girls bowled, ate and only ran amuck for a short period. We were all finished by 4.30pm. The parental hosts congratulated each other. ‘Great party,’ we agreed. ‘Same again next year?’
But then we emerged from Hollywood Bowl and blinked in horror. A wet grey day had turned into a whirling blizzard. The car park was already caked with snow - on top of the ice remaining from last week’s snowfall. Getting home - five miles max - was going to be more interesting than we’d thought.
My family had taken two cars to the party. My husband packed my son and the presents into his, and set out for home. I’d planned to drop my daughter and her friend Hannah at their friend Gila’s house for a sleepover, then take my niece Eliana to her home. Perhaps a thirty minute round trip. But as we set off into crawling traffic and blinding snow, I rapidly changed my mind. ‘Eliana,’ I said, ‘Can you call your mum? I think you’d better stay overnight with us.’
It took about an hour to get near to Gila’s house. The roads were clear enough though, until we turned off to her hilly street. Suddenly the tyres slipped, and whirred pointlessly. We weren’t going to make it up the hill. So I slid the car in the direction of the kerb, managed to park and we trudged through the snow up the hill to her house.
Jeanie, Gila’s mum welcomed the girls and urged me to stay. ‘No, no…we’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘It’s a main road virtually all the way home, they’re sure to have gritted it. And we live on a bus route, so that'll be gritted too. Don’t worry. We’ll just have to turn around at the bottom of your road somehow.’ So Eliana and I trudged back down the hill.
I struggled to turn the car. It slipped and slid and barely moved. Then a figure appeared out of the swirling snowflakes. A tall man with a long beard, a rabbinic figure. He spoke softly. ‘Take it slowly,’ he said, ‘Very little gas, just let it roll.’ Miraculously the car executed a perfect three point turn. The man disappeared back into his car. We were pointing downhill, just yards from the main road. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I told Eliana.
But the hill was steep and the road was icy and the car couldn’t get a grip. And immediately we swerved and slid and the brakes wouldn’t work and - crunch! – we bumped straight into the back of the car waiting at the traffic lights at the foot of the hill.
The driver understood. We exchanged details. ‘Can I get out?’ asked Eliana, ‘I didn’t like that.’ But we were only inches from the main road. The main road I was sure would be gritted and safe and would get us nearly all the way home. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We’ll be fine.’
We crawled along the A1. We were not fine. The car shivered and slid. The wheels spun with no forward movement. We watched other cars swerve around. ‘I don’t like this,’ said Eliana. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Nor do I.’
And then we got to a bit of a hill. And the car refused the challenge. I watched the tail lights of the queue in front disappear, as I strained to get the car to move. I tried no gas. I tried lots of gas. Nothing worked. A man pulled up next to me. ‘Put it in first!’ he cried. ‘Pull the clutch up slowly!’ ‘It’s an automatic!’ I wailed back to him.
I thought ahead to our destination. London ceased to be the urban landscape I’m used to and instead became a contoured wilderness. We live in a valley. Every approach involved a steep downwards slope. It wasn’t going to happen. And still the snow was falling down.
I made a swift decision and pulled the car round in a U turn. Maybe I could just roll downhill for a bit, get back to the foot of Jeanie and Gila’s road. But as soon as the car got a hint of the downwards slope it lost all semblance of control. We careered down the A1 like a kid on a toboggan. ‘I really don’t like this!’ said Eliana, with a note of panic. ‘Please can I get out?’
I managed to steer the car up onto a high kerb, and it came to a halt with three wheels on the grass verge. We missed a lamp post by a whisker. I contemplated our strategy. We could stay in the nice warm car and eat the left over party food. But neither Eliana nor I had our phones with us, and who was going to rescue us anyway? Or we could walk the half mile or so to Jeanie’s house. We abandoned the car. And we walked through the snow for what felt like hours, Eliana dressed to party with no coat and crocs on her feet. I was wearing high-heeled patent leather boots, with no grip whatsoever. We held hands and tried to avoid the ice by treading on the powdery snow.
Finally - finally – we arrived at Jeanie’s door. ‘I knew it!’ she said, ‘I knew you’d never make it.’ Jeanie is American. ‘The British have no idea how to handle snow,’ she added. My daughter raised an eyebrow. It’s not often one’s mother hijacks a sleepover party.
Jeanie had her own troubles. Her new cupboards had arrived from Ikea, but didn’t fit the prescribed space. So her bedroom was a mound of clothes, with nowhere to put them. Her husband was struggling home from work in the snow, and not answering his phone. Now she had to feed nine for supper, while trying to tidy the house for the visitors who were going to stay in their house over Christmas. Jeanie is a great woman. She welcomed us with open arms.
I called my husband. ‘I’ve abandoned the car,’ I confessed. ‘You’ve done what?’
I explained. ‘You’ll get a ticket,’ he said, ‘Or towed away. You can’t abandon a car in London. It’s a police state.’
'And I smashed into someone else's car.'
'You did what?'
‘Isn’t it snowing where you are? Where are you, anyway?’
‘Umm…I’m not really sure. We’ve had to take an odd route home.’ So many roads had been closed on their way home that they’d overshot the house and were somewhere to the south trying to head back north. They were crawling up a hill trying to get home. Later, he called to report progress. Driving down our neighbourhood’s high street took an hour to cover 200 yards. They’d been in the car for three hours. He gave up, parked and took my son for a Vietnamese meal to round off his party afternoon.
‘Just walk home from there,’ I begged. ‘I can’t,’ he said, ‘The bastard parking wardens will give me a ticket in the morning.’ It struck me that my husband has developed a little paranoia about parking penalties since we returned to live in London. It took them four hours door to door, but eventually they got the car into a space outside our front door.
The next morning the roads had been gritted. My sister arrived to rescue Eliana - who will never be allowed to leave the house coatless ever again - and gave me a lift back to my car, which was slumped drunkenly but ticketless on the side of the road. The kerb was much higher than I’d realised. Reversing off a soft grass verge into fast-flowing traffic is not much fun. And descending the steep slopes to our valley home was also pretty scary thanks to an eccentric system of gritting only one side of the road. I finally staggered into my house - nineteen hours after the party ended.
Later I rang round to make sure that everyone else had made it home safely. They all had – but quite a few impromptu sleepovers followed the party. ‘No one will ever forget Judah and Adam’s party,’ said one mum, who’d been saying prayers all the way home.
I’ve had a few conversations today with people about why Britain’s so rubbish at dealing with snow. It’s because it happens so rarely. It’s because we don’t believe in investing in the infrastructure. According to the local news, it’s because the rain just before the snow meant that the grit could not be laid, because it would have dissolved. And anyway local councils are running out of grit. We don’t take winter seriously enough, suggested one man. We ought to change our tyres every winter, but we don’t even think of it.
Well, I went and got my tyres checked today and three of them needed replacing. I’m going to buy a shovel tomorrow. I’m never going to travel without my phone again, and I’m going to keep a pair of wellies in the boot. And I’m going to suggest that next year we hold Judah and Adam’s birthday party a few months early - perhaps in August.